After millions of students were directed to take classes virtually in the spring and so far this fall, the benefits of in-person class have become abundantly clear. For school districts making in-person learning work this fall, countless changes for safety reasons have been necessary. In particular, the CDC recommends that both teachers and students socially distance and wear masks.

But how is the learning environment affected when the majority of facial expressions are less visible? How can nonverbal communication still be visible while taking the appropriate precautions?

Who Needs Facial Cues The Most?

Students who are deaf, hard of hearing, and autistic rely the most on facial cues. Reading lips and seeing facial expressions give grammatical signals necessary for school comprehension. Even American Sign Language (ASL) relies on facial expressions and mouth movement for effective communication. Masks leave it up to sign language, reading expressions in eyes, and hand gestures to give context.

Students in language classes are also among the most reliant on seeing facial cues and mouth movement. Mouth movement can help students learn the pronunciation of words that are spelled or said similarly, especially in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Likewise, nonverbal communication, like facial expression, adds context and meaning for new words.

In an interview with Education Week, Heidi Faust, director of learning and engagement for the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages Organization, indicated that many language teachers demonstrate pronunciation of a new alphabet by showing tongue and lip movement. She expressed concern that masks are a potential barrier for students new to speaking English because they rely more on non-verbal cues that will be partly hidden by face coverings.

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How Do Nonverbal Cues Affect Classroom Management?

From elementary to high school, teachers need to express emotion and enthusiasm to keep a class attentive and interested. Because the human face is extremely expressive, we can communicate countless feelings without using any verbal language. Sentiments shared through facial expressions are universal. 

Younger students, particularly in preschool and kindergarten, rely on facial cues for language-learning or phonics lessons and emotional and social development. They pay attention to smiles and frowns to determine if their actions are right or wrong. These facial cues can affect their classroom behavior if they’re not given a clear signal that their actions disrupt the learning environment. 

In an article for Springerplus, authors Mohamed Sathik and Sofia G Jonathan studied the importance of facial cues in virtual classrooms. They observed professors encouraging students’ cameras to be on to see if they were following along with the course during virtual lectures. The instructors also gauged facial cues to sense if they should slow down their lesson, repeat anything, or were in the clear to speed up on more straightforward topics. 

What Helps?

Nationwide, city ordinances require face coverings for teachers and students to reduce the spread of coronavirus. While face masks tend to be the most common form of face covering, there are other alternatives, such as face shields, desk, hanging and rolling barriers. 

For instance, the Illinois State Board of Education, Texas Education Agency, and the California Department of Public Health have all taken steps to provide face shields to their teachers in favor of better facial cue visibility. The majority of which was intended for elementary schools because of cue importance in classroom control.

There are also other alternatives for teachers whose classes require the visibility of facial cues. For example, in Massachusetts, an ESL teacher recorded videos of herself pronouncing certain words and placed a microphone in the room as they must wear masks in conjunction with the shields.

A safe classroom doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing effective communication between teachers and students. Clear face shields and desk barriers allow students’ expressions to be visible during lectures and let the teacher adjust accordingly. With so many students relying on nonverbal communication to get the most out of school, IDD provides solutions that create a simultaneously safe and efficient classroom. 

We have helped several schools outfit their classrooms with clear desk barriers that provide an additional layer of protection for students and teachers. Also, IDD donated 1,000 face shields to Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City for use during before and after school programs. These will allow students to interact with one another while still enabling them to express emotions. Being able to see faces and expressions was appealing to the leadership of the clubs.

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